Whole Brain Teaching Is Weird — and Weirdly Viral

Learning Research

Whole Brain Teaching Is Weird — and Weirdly Viral

By Sydney Johnson     Jul 31, 2018

Whole Brain Teaching Is Weird — and Weirdly Viral

This article is part of the guide: The World Is Watching: How YouTube Shapes Education.

Do a quick internet search for “whole-brain teaching” and it will pull up a string of videos of young students repeating words back to a teacher in unison, waving hands or conducting other movements, and turning to their neighbor every few minutes to share.

In some ways, these classrooms look like organized chaos. But there’s a reasoning behind what’s happening on screen: The idea is to trigger different parts of the brain which maybe aren’t flexing their full potential in a traditional one-way lecture format.

Some researchers have criticized the model for lacking scientific evidence and relying on misleading information about how the brain works. But that hasn’t stopped educators from from watching whole-brain teaching videos—some of which have racked up hundreds of thousands views on YouTube—and converting others to the whole-brain model.

One example is Stacey Byl, a 4th grade teacher in Michigan who trains educators in whole-brain teaching. Like many fans of the movement, Byl says she discovered the teaching style through online videos.

“I was drawn to the videos… because the kids were so engaged and smiling,” Byl, who previously taught kindergarten, said in an email. “As a kindergarten teacher, I recognized the need to balance classroom management with the need for kids to move and be kids.”

When using whole-brain teaching methods, Byl turns to a toolbox of strategies intended to tickle different parts of the brain. “Mirror words” are one of the most common techniques, and involve students repeating words and movements back to a teacher. The assumption is that using different parts of the body will help students better internalize the learning material.

“If the kids are repeating what you're saying and they're using their bodies, there's a ton of brain engagement at work,” says Byl. “We find the kids tend to remember it.”

Quick and frequent breaks in instruction is also key. After a couple minutes of repeating words and movements, students are then asked to turn to their neighbors to repeat what they just learned.

Chris Biffle is a former college instructor who started the movement back in 1999, along with its accompanying organization, called Whole Brain Teaching. The earliest versions of whole-brain teaching were Biffle simply asking students to repeat words back to him. Students appeared more focused, he says, so he began sharing the model through books and videos.

Nearly 20 years later, Biffle now believes there is a physical science to the method. “As you mirror those gestures, you're activating your motor cortex. And as you repeat my words, you're activating Wernicke's area and Broca's area. And as you're having a good time, that's the limbic system.”


While whole-brain teaching has taken off on social media, education and neuroscience experts have yet to take the model very seriously.

“The reason that I, and every other neuroscientist, will scoff at that label is that your whole brain is learning every single second of every single day,” says Melina Uncapher, an assistant professor in neurology at University of California, San Francisco.

“It would be like saying I'm gonna promote two-leg walking. You have to do two-leg walking.”

When asked if there’s any truth to saying certain physical movements could trigger parts of the brain to improve engagement, her answer is simple: “No.”

“Shifting your attention all over the place is going to be, most likely, drawing your attention away from the learning goals themselves,” says Uncapher, who is also the director of the Education Program at UCSF’s Neuroscape, which researches brain function and technology.

Barbara Tversky, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, echoes Uncapher’s sentiment: “‘Whole-brain teaching’ is not well-defined, nor how it contrasts with other forms of teaching.”

“In general, huge amounts of the brain are active under many circumstances,” Tversky writes in an email. But, she adds, effective learning sometimes requires parts of the brain be less active, too.

“Just imagine if the motor cortex were directing legs to dance or mouths to sing while their owners were doing math problems or listening to explanations of history by a teacher,” says Tversky. “This is only one reason why it would be a disaster if the whole brain were involved in teaching or learning.”

Brain-based Bandwagon

Byl, the teacher in Michigan, is a board member for Whole Brain Teaching and trains educators when she’s not teaching her own students. She estimates that she’s trained between 500 to 600 educators in whole-brain methods in the last two years.

The Whole Brain Teaching organization has at least 28 “certified” instructors around the country, according to its website, and claims to have given free seminars to 50,000 educators—many of whom discover the teaching style on YouTube or through word of mouth.

Nearly all of the trainings that the organization offers, including an annual conference, are free for educators. Schools will sometimes pay the organization to come do larger trainings on campus, and fees cover the cost of travel. Teacher trainers in the organization are made entirely of volunteers.

The founder says the success of the whole-brain teaching has been directly linked to the videos’ success. “We didn't start growing until we started putting videos on YouTube and learned little by little how to use Facebook,” Biffle says. “Our YouTube videos have gotten 8 million views.”

Meanwhile, Uncapher says she has seen many brain-based learning fads come and go. She has not conducted research on whole-brain teaching, but isn’t surprised by its popularity.

“People get very seduced by the brain,” says Uncapher. The appeal can be an issue, she adds, if the model is lacking sound research.

And in the case of whole-brain teaching, there isn’t a lot of research to back up claims or strategies. According to Biffle, a formal study is too expensive for the group to engage in.

“It's taken us a long time to figure out how to do this, and because we don't have funding, we can't buy research studies,” Biffle says. “If we charged, we could have bought researchers’ time years ago. We've had a number of dissertations that have been written on Whole Brain Teaching, but nationwide, the kind of scale we would be looking at would frankly cost millions of dollars.”

Uncapher warns educators to steer clear if proof is missing. “If the products don't present papers or studies that have shown the efficacy, the evidence of effectiveness, of their program, then I say run.”

Still, the neuroscientist also thinks that even without formal studies, teaching students about how they learn can have positive effects.

“If teachers are talking about the brain to the kids and empowering them with information around how your brain learns, and you have control over what you learn and how you learn, that in itself is a powerful message,” she says. “That's actually a fundamental message to the growth mindset intervention, and why those can be so effective.”

Explaining those methods has been a large part of Byl’s approach to teaching and training, which she evaluates by simply asking the teachers how it’s working.

For her own students, Byl is convinced there is an increase in engagement and retaining information with whole-brain methods. “My kids love this, we're having fun, we're all laughing,” she says. “The focus is to give teachers as many tools as they can to feel successful in the classroom and to engage kids so that they love learning. That's really what the whole goal is.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

The World Is Watching: How YouTube Shapes Education

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up